The move comes amid a government U-turn on Tuesday (October 26) following several Conservative MPs across the country facing a backlash from constituents when they voted down the amendment to the Environment Bill, tabled by the Lords the previous week.
The amendment itself called for a legal duty on water firms not to discharge untreated sewage into the sea.
Lewes MP Maria Caulfield voted against the Lords amendment and six days later the government did a U-turn and introduced its own amendment following the backlash.
Across East Sussex, Hastings and Rye MP Sally-Ann Hart voted against the amendment, while Bexhill and Battle MP Huw Merriman backed it.
Eastbourne MP Caroline Ansell was unable to vote due to being in hospital.
On Tuesday the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the Environment Bill will be ‘further strengthened with an amendment that will see a duty enshrined in law’ to make sure water firms ‘secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows’.
After the subsequent government announcement Mrs Caulfield said she was ‘really pleased that we will see a legal reduction in sewage discharges’.
She wrote on Facebook, “We could not accept the Lords amendment but a government amendment has worked up realistic timings in law, to end sewage discharges into rivers and seas.
“During wet weather, storm overflows release diluted wastewater into rivers, preventing a combination of sewage and rain from overloading the sewers and backing up into homes and businesses. As climate change has led to greater rainfall, and water infrastructure has not kept pace with population growth, their use has increased in recent years.
“Significant penalties have already been handed out to water companies discharging unacceptable amounts of sewage into our rivers. Earlier this year, Southern Water received a record-breaking £90m fine, while Thames Water was handed £4m and £2.3million fines for separate incidents.
“The government will hold underperforming companies to account, and is already taking direct action to deliver progressive reductions in the harm caused by storm overflows through measures in the Environment Bill, including: a new duty directly on water companies to produce comprehensive statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans, setting out how they will manage and develop their drainage and sewerage system over a 25-year planning horizon, including how storm overflows will be addressed through these plans.”
Speaking after the vote Mrs Ansell said, “The latest government position will place serious obligations on water companies to clean up their act. As a coastal community this has particular resonance for us.
“Bills going through parliament change all the time with amendments added and removed and wording changed. The Environment Bill, which is hugely important and significant legislation, continues to move through this process and will return once again to the House of Commons for further debate.”
Yesterday (Thursday, October 29) Southern Water welcomed the government’s announcement that it will amend the Environment Bill.
Ian McAulay, Southern Water’s CEO, said, “We welcome the strengthening of the Environment Bill, and we are proceeding immediately with action and investment. We are already acting now to cut pollution incidents by 80 per cent over the next four years and we believe we can achieve a similar reduction in storm releases by 2030.”
A storm release happens when, in order to protect people’s homes and businesses, schools and hospitals from flooding, water is released through a combined sewer overflow. This usually occurs during periods of heavy rainfall and around 95 per cent of these releases are rainwater.
Mr McAulay said, “All 83 of our bathing waters meet strict European standards, a challenge which 20 years ago seemed impossible, but was delivered. Now we want to take the next steps which is why we are investing over £2 billion on improving our wastewater network. This investment is on track and is already making a tangible difference in communities across our region.
“Another visible and public example of our commitment to tackle this problem is our industry leading Beachbuoy app. This provides near real-time information on releases of stormwater and is part of our drive to be as transparent as possible. This initiative will make it easy for everyone to hold us to account in reducing storm overflows and we are confident our customers will see a real improvement as our investment programme begins take effect.
“In order to go faster and further we are already looking at innovative solutions to reduce storm releases while ensuring value for money. We think it is achievable with the right partnerships and collaboration underpinned by policy. The first of these proposals, all incorporating nature based approaches, will be published for consultation in the next few weeks.
“To ensure action happens we have today launched a dedicated task force which will work with customers and regional stakeholders to focus on reducing the number of these incidents as quickly as possible. We are certain a holistic approach, working with local government and stakeholders is the way forward to reach the targets we all want to achieve.”